Like many girls growing up in Madras, I learned Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam (as well as, unlike most, western classical piano). It was my great fortune and blessing that I had exceptional gurus who instinctively understood the fundamentals of pedagogy and brought them to life. Their love and dedication for their art, their passion to share their knowledge, their hard work for very little material reward, all inspired and influenced me and have played a tremendous role in who and what I am today. Alas, none of them are alive any more; just a few days back, the last of my childhood gurus, Kalanidhi Narayanan, referred to by one and all as Kalanidhi Maami, passed away. I have shared some memories, experiences and thoughts that I hope encapsulate the remarkable essence of Maami, and my relationship with her.
It is near-impossible to adequately describe Kalanidhi Maami. She was a delightful contradiction, both the archetypical Tamil Maami and utterly avant-garde, in her thinking, the path she created for herself post-widowhood, the lives she enriched, the art form she nourished and watched take root and flourish around the world.
I can see the bafflement glazing your eyes, dear readers, those of you who are not steeped in the world of Bharata Natyam and its cast of characters. I am sorry. Allow me to take you on a quick journey through the life of this remarkable trailblazer. Kalanidhi Maami was born into a traditional Tamil Brahmin household in 1928. Her parents must have been forward thinking because although it was still an era when it was frowned upon for girls from respectable Brahmin families to learn and perform dance, they had young Kalanidhi trained in music and dance, from some of the best and most knowledgeable teachers of the day. She learned padams and javalis, songs loaded with love and life, with immense expressive possibilities. Her early dance career - which, she admits was not exactly brimming with passion and enthusiasm - was cut short when she got married at the tender age of 16. As it turned out, it was not quite aborted but rather, suspended, that kernel that had been sowed remaining quietly alive somewhere deep within her while she devoted herself to her family.
Three decades passed. The country experienced tremendous upheaval as it underwent a tumultuous rebirth as a new political and geographical entity. Through this, I imagine that Maami’s life carried on steadily, calmly. I have no idea - ours is a culture that is intensely curious about other people but perhaps because of this, we keep the details about our own lives close to our hearts. The only way to satisfy that curiosity is through gossip, prying, eavesdropping. I like to believe that Maami, with her strength of character and her focus on excellence, was above the petty world of idle prattle. One did not gossip about her.
Maami never talked (to me, at least) about those 30 years; how and why she decided to pick up the slender, time-worn threads of a long-past dancing life is a mystery to me. This was in the mid-1970s. She set herself apart from the dozens of Bharata Natyam gurus of Madras by specializing in teaching abhinaya (very broadly, the expressive aspect of the dance) for padams and javalis. The word must have got around that she was very good, her classes something special. And here is the other mystery. The dance gurus of the time were a possessive and territorial lot. They expected absolute loyalty from their students; even thinking about learning an item from another teacher was considered an act of betrayal. And yet all the top gurus of the time allowed - encouraged, even - their students to learn from Kalanidhi Maami and many dancers announced themselves to be the students of two gurus, Kalanidhi Maami and whoever their “main” teacher was. Dance programs included items taught by both gurus. Padams and Javalis, those items which seemed to be either about the butter-stealing antics of Krishna or the angst of jilted heroines, were largely the sleeper items in a program filled with more exciting offerings like the Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Varnam and Thillana. But now they became appealing, provocative, electrifying. All thanks to Kalanidhi Maami’s choreography and teaching.
I was one of Kalanidhi Maami's earliest students. I was a teenager, at an age when I was far too self-conscious and easily mortified to make the best of an extraordinary experience and education. Maami was like no other Maami I knew. She had a wicked sense of humor and she understood the myriad little nuances of human nature and behavior and was not coy about talking about and describing the most explicit, the most erotic of scenarios.
I was taken aback, the first time we went through a padam together. The padam sang of a heroine flushed and ecstatic after a night of pleasure with her lover. Maami, middle-aged, small-built, utterly nondescript looking, sang the song in a warbly croak and enacted it and then, as if an enchanting spell had been cast, I saw before me a dishevelled beauty with smudged kohl and swollen lips and tender skin marked with love bites. It was completely stunning; I was mesmerized, immobilized by amazement. Did I say that Maami was nondescript looking? Did I really say that? Nothing could be further from the truth because once you saw her eyes, huge, shining storytelling eyes that spoke of love and laughter, grief and anguish, the colorful theatrical landscapes of the Nava Rasas (nine emotions) of classical Indian dance you realized how shallow your notions of beauty had been all this time. She could pick one line of a song and imagine a dozen different scenarios for that line. With just the smallest tremble of her mouth or flutter of her eyelashes she transformed herself from the Khanditha Nayika, the heroine who is furious with her cheating lover, to a Swadheenapathika Nayika, the smug, arrogant one who has her lover wrapped around her little finger with her sensuousness and beauty. From the weepy insecure young woman to the confident older woman, from the exasperated mother to the sniveling daughter, Maami knew just how to bring them to life and how to ignite our imaginations and make us animate these heroines with their endlessly complicated love lives and tell their stories through abhinaya and the language of Bharata Natyam.
(This is an excerpt from another post on this blog about Malavika Sarukkai and Bharata Natyam. To read the entire piece, click here.)